Should violence against women in the UK be seen as hate crime?

Woman-hating continues to occupy a central and too-often unrecognised and unchallenged position within our culture. Julia Long argues that approaches to stop such violence will fail unless they also address issues of endemic cultural misogyny
Julia Long
30 November 2010

On 25 February 2008, Levi Bellfield was convicted in the British courts of the murders of two young women, Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of a third, Kate Sheedy, whom he had run over repeatedly, leaving her with extensive and horrific injuries. Prior to these convictions, Bellfield had faced other charges of abduction, false imprisonment and attempted murder of women, and in 2010 he was charged with the abduction and murder of thirteen-year-old Amanda Dowler. Police believe that he may be linked to a dozen further crimes against women in West London, and former partners testify to being beaten and raped by Bellfield.

Following his trial and conviction, police and media reports spoke of Bellfield’s ‘hatred’ and ‘intense loathing’ of women; a former girlfriend described how he had confessed that he would wait in alleyways wanting to "hurt, kill, stab or rape women" and told of how she had discovered pornographic pictures on which Bellfield had slashed the faces of blonde models. Bellfield had a reputation for sexually harassing under-age girls, pestering them from a van with blacked-out windows in which he kept a mattress, blankets and a baseball bat.

If Bellfield’s hate-motivated violence had been directed at victims on the basis of their perceived race, religion or belief, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity, his crimes would clearly have been recognised as hate crimes. However, under UK legislation, women as a group are not recognised as a ‘hate crime’ identity category. What are the implications of this? And would it be desirable for violence against women to be recognised as a form of hate crime?

Feminist understandings of violence against women

Unlike the murders carried out by Bellfield, most acts of violence against women are perpetrated by men known to the victim. According to the End Violence Against Women Coalition: ‘Each year across the UK 3 million women experience violence, and there are many more living with the legacies of abuse experienced in the past. In the UK it includes: domestic violence, rape and sexual violence, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, crimes in the name of honour, trafficking and sexual exploitation. It is mostly committed by men that women know or are in a close relationship with’. Of the 1,000 women who are subjected to rape or attempted rape each week, most are attacked by men they know, whether as partners, friends or acquaintances. One in four UK women have been affected by domestic violence and according to the Department of Health two women are killed each week by a violent male partner or ex-partner.

Recognition of violence against women as a widespread and serious issue is attributable to four decades of feminist activism, research and scholarship. Feminist campaigns have put violence against women on the political agenda; activists have set up services for victims and brought about important changes in how the criminal justice system deals with violence against women. One of the most important achievements of feminism has been to locate patriarchal power, gender inequality and misogyny at the heart of all forms of violence against women. Feminists make connections between individual acts of rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence and femicide, the broader context of women’s ongoing inequality, and a culture which variously normalises, trivialises or glamorises violence against women. In making these connections, second wave, radical feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Susan Brownmiller argued that violence against women occurs within a misogynistic culture, underpinned, enabled and sustained by patriarchal power relations.

However, the struggle for these insights to influence mainstream debates and attitudes to violence against women is ongoing. Within mainstream culture, media, politics and the legal system, violence against women continues to be viewed primarily as a personal, individualised issue. Incidents of violence tend to be seen as either the actions of ‘monsters’ or ‘psychopaths’ (as in the case of Bellfield); the result of unfortunate domestic disputes or choice of spouse; or as attributable to negligence on the part of the woman herself - her clothing, her location, her behaviour, whether she had consumed alcohol. In the UK, considerations of patriarchy only tend to enter mainstream debates when the violence is perpetrated within minority ethnic communities, where it is then seen as evidence of ‘backward’ cultural attitudes to women.

Given that violence against women, in spite of its pervasiveness, continues to be constructed within mainstream discourses as a mainly individualised issue, it is pertinent to consider how feminist insights might best be brought to bear in order to transform debates on violence against women. Would including women as a category protected under hate crime legislation help to bring about a recognition of the systematic and generalised nature of violence against women, and highlight the crucial role of structural power relations between women and men?

Implications of UK hate crime legislation

Hate crime is recognised as ‘different’ to other crime within the UK criminal justice system. According to the UK Home Office, it is ‘different’ because:

  • hate crime targets people because of their identity. It is a form of discrimination that infringes human rights and keeps people from enjoying the full benefits of our society
  • research has shown that hate crimes cause greater psychological harm than similar crimes without a motivation of prejudice
  • hate crime creates fear in victims, groups and communities and encourages communities to turn on each other.

The nature and effects of hate crime means that it is seen as particularly serious: Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 imposes a duty on courts to increase the sentence for any offence aggravated by hostility based on the victim's sexual orientation or disability. Evidence of hostility based on disability, sexual orientation or presumed sexual orientation must be seen as something that makes the offence more serious. Similar provisions already exist in relation to race, resulting from The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry which also resulted in the imposition of minimum tariffs in relation to the sentencing of murderers motivated by hostility.

Violence against women as hate crime?

The British Home Office description of hate crime would seem to fit very well with crimes of violence against women, as is demonstrated by replacing ‘hate crime’ with ‘violence against women’ in the bullet points above: the resulting description neatly encapsulates several of the key feminist insights regarding the systematic nature and structural effects of violence against women. Similarly, a recognition of the particularly serious nature of these crimes when it comes to sentencing would also seem appropriate and desirable.

However, feminist campaigners have expressed reservations regarding the desirability of utilising a ‘hate crime’ approach. Firstly, hate crime legislation is generally designed to deal with ‘stranger’ or ‘outsider’ violence: violence from a person outside of one’s personal and social circles. Whilst this would obviously apply in cases like Bellfield described above, it is less useful in dealing with the majority of incidents of violence against women, where the perpetrator is likely to be a partner, ex-partner, acquaintance or friend. Campaigners believe that women victims would be unlikely to perceive these acts of violence as motivated by hate or prejudice. Activist Hilary McCollum doubts that defining violence against women and girls as hate crime would help its victims access services and redress: ‘Many people covered by the existing hate crime definition don’t readily identify their experiences with the term – ‘hate’ can feel too big a word, especially for crimes committed by people known to the victim’.

McCollum also voices concern at what she sees as the inadequacies of current hate crime legislation in addressing issues of intersectionality, and the depoliticising tendencies of the term ‘hate’. Without a full consideration and integration of power relations, McCollum argues, ‘hate crimes can be depoliticised as motivated by irrational prejudice, rather than domination, exclusion and control’. Other feminist campaigners express concerns that if violence against women was included alongside other hate crime categories, recognition of its specificities, scale and prevalence could be lost, and funding might consequently be jeopardised.

‘Hate crime’: a useful concept?

The reservations of feminist campaigners with regard to hate crime approaches highlight important inadequacies in the way that such approaches frame acts of violence based on structural inequalities. However, I would argue that the concept of hate crime does at least bring considerations of discrimination and the generalised effects of violence into the picture. The notion of hate crime facilitates and supports a recognition that inequalities and discrimination experienced by certain groups exist on a spectrum that ranges from racist, homophobic and disablist language, through discrimination in employment, goods and services, and ultimately to acts of violence and murder. So whilst the term has its problems, it does at least serve to make links between cultural attitudes, discrimination and acts of violence. What is necessary is a further re-framing of the issue in order to recognise that power and control are key motivations for violence against women and girls, and that individual acts of violence are supported by a context of structural inequality and cultural misogyny.

Returning to the Bellfield case mentioned at the beginning of this article, it should be noted that just three days prior to Bellfield’s conviction, two other men had been found guilty of murder. Steve Wright had murdered five young women in Ipswich, East Anglia, and Mark Dixie was convicted of murdering an eighteen year old woman, and then raping her while she was dead or dying. Both men had previous histories of violence against women. Speaking of all three cases, Kira Cochrane observed in The Guardian:

In each case, what comes through most strongly is just how open, violent and persistent the killer’s misogyny was, and how they were allowed to indulge it, and even boast of it, for years. The reports paint a picture of a society in which misogyny is taken as a given.

Whether violence against women is viewed as hate crime or not, it is evident that woman-hating continues to occupy a central and too-often unrecognised and unchallenged position within our culture, and that approaches to stop such violence will fail unless they also address issues of endemic cultural misogyny.

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